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From a British teen, sounds of pure soul

Joss Stone's debut showcases a voice that evokes a bygone era

Joss Stone looks like a budding pop princess. She's pretty and perky with long blond hair and has the perfect 16-year-old's figure for tank tops and hip-hugging jeans. But don't get it twisted - when Stone sings, it's like listening to an old soul record plucked from a dusty stack of forgotten 45s.

Wet with emotion and seasoned with an ache beyond her years, her voice sounds as if it were cured in Beale Street juke joints or Baptist churches on Chicago's South Side - not rural England, where Stone was born and raised.

``I open my mouth, and it comes out. I can't explain it,'' says Stone in her frisky British accent during a recent telephone interview. ``People always ask me, `Where did you get that voice?' They all think I sound black. And I'm like, `Thank you, but no, I don't hear it.' It's definitely a compliment, and it's so sweet. But when I listen to myself, I cannot hear it. This is just how I sing.''

Stone's vocal gifts are the centerpiece of her remarkable debut CD, ``The Soul Sessions,'' due out Tuesday on S-Curve Records. It's an album of covers, most of them obscure soul songs from the 1970s, such as Joe Simon's ``Chokin' Kind,'' Bettye Swann's ``Victim of a Foolish Heart,'' and Sugar Billy's ``Super Duper Love.'' This is not the modern hip-hop soul of Mary J. Blige. This is the soundtrack of blue-light basement parties a thousand sweaty Saturday nights ago, songs accented with wah-wah guitars and the righteous hum of a Hammond B-3 organ that were popular long before Stone was born.

``At first, I wasn't really down with covers because I thought I might not do them justice, and I'm still worried about that,'' says Stone, who will perform at Borders in Downtown Crossing Sept. 29.

Though her parents always played various types of music, including soul and R&B, in their Devon, England home, Stone says she ``only started singing properly two or three years ago.''

A turning point was an Aretha Franklin CD she received from her mother as a Christmas gift when Stone was 12 years old. She was also strongly influenced by Al Green, Gladys Knight, and Whitney Houston.

``Ah! I have no words for that woman. How the hell does she do that with her voice?'' says Stone, referring to the Queen of Soul. ``All my friends were into English pop bands, and I was like, `Nah, listen to this.' They all thought I was crazy.''

Stone began performing at school and local competitions. A recording of Stone performing Franklin's classic ``A Natural Woman (You Make Me Feel Like)'' and Otis Redding's ``(Sittin' on) The Dock of the Bay'' wound up in the hands of respected British producers the Boiler House Boys, who sent it to Steve Greenberg, president of S-Curve Records in New York. At the time, Stone was 14.

``We brought her in and started downloading from the Internet karaoke tracks of old soul songs,'' Greenberg recalls. ``Joss just walked in the studio and killed those songs. It was amazing.

Stone's debut was supposed to be an album of original songs, but between sessions, Greenberg would play soul songs for Stone. Soon, the teenager was learning and singing the songs a cappella around the studio.

``It sounded so good, and it just hit me one day,'' Greenberg says. ``There are so many young girls who are good singers who want to be on the radio with a single, but there's nobody out there who's just sort of doing it purely for the art of it. Wouldn't it be great if she was introduced to the world as someone making art and not just another girl who wants to get on the radio with the freshest beats of the moment?''

Greenberg, who once worked at Mercury Records and executive produced Hanson's debut CD ``Middle of Nowhere,'' which spawned the hit ``MMMBop,'' is wary of overexposing Stone. In that spirit, he says there are no plans to release a single from her album. Nor will there be a video - which is fine with Stone. ``I'm not too good with cameras,'' she says. ``I'm not a model, and I'm not an actress. I'm a singer.''

On ``The Soul Sessions,'' co-produced by Greenberg, Michael Mangini, and Betty Wright, perhaps best known for her 1970s soul chestnut, ``Clean Up Woman,'' Stone shows she knows her way around a song. Given her age and abilities, she sings with surprising control and discipline - she never shows off, never tries to sing a song to shreds. She remakes John Sebastian's folk song, ``I Had a Dream,'' as a gospel ballad and even pulls off a nasty-groove version of the White Stripes' breakthrough hit, ``Fell in Love with a Girl,'' changed to ``Fell in Love with a Boy.''

``I didn't know that song before Steve played it for me, and my first reaction was, `Why the hell are you playing this for me?' It was cool, but I was like `huh?''' Stone recalls. ``Then, he said we could slow the song down, and the Roots [the acclaimed hip-hop band] would produce it, and that's all I needed to hear.'' The Roots played the music, and Wright and Angie Stone added backing vocals.

``I've always thought there were a lot of punk songs that if you slowed them down would sound like soul songs,'' says Greenberg, who once produced a soul version of the Ramones ``Rockaway Beach,'' with Joey Ramone and General Johnson, former lead singer of 1970s soul group Chairmen of the Board. ``And I thought the White Stripes would work, especially because there's a blues foundation to their music.''

With her first album due out within days, and upcoming dates at the popular New York spot Joe's Pub, Stone acknowledges her initial success seems ``a little quick. ... I feel like I cheated a little bit.'' Stone, whose given name is Joscelyn, is again working on her album of original material, tentatively scheduled for release early next year. Music is now her full-time activity. Never one for the books, she dropped out of school a year ago and travels to recording sessions and club gigs with her mother.

Her next album, she says, will be more contemporary R&B with touches of hip-hop, although she insists she won't be dropping any rhymes. But classic soul, Stone says, will always remain her first love with its songs of love lost and found, of hearts broken and caressed to life - even if some wonder how someone her age can sing these songs with such world-weary conviction.

``I'm from England, I'm white, and I'm 16, and I suppose that's different,'' she says. ``People always ask me how I connect with these songs because I'm so young. But to tell you the truth, I may be young, but I haven't lived a proper, sheltered life.

``I'm not saying my life's been tragic because it's not. But there are things everyone can relate to. And when I sing, I just feel it.''

Renee Graham can be reached at Rgraham@globe.com.

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